Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
"The 188th Crybaby Brigade – A Skinny Jewish Kid from Chicago Fights Hezbollah," by Joel Chasnoff (publ. 2010) is a well-written, insightful, at times hysterically funny memoir of a young American Yeshiva bucher who sought to live the complete modern Jewish experience while shedding the Diaspora coat of victimhood. He made aliyah, enlisted in the Israeli army, did basic training, was chosen “Outstanding Soldier of the Platoon,” fought the Hezbollah as a tank commander in Lebanon, and got engaged to a beautiful Israeli woman.
One would think that he had arrived. But not so fast!
Joel’s army experience was not what he expected. He was, in fact, disheartened by the capricious, nasty, sadistic, and dehumanizing treatment of recruits by some of the commanders. Yet, after three weeks of training he reflected that
“…mandatory army service is the reason why Israelis are the way they are: aggressive, hotheaded, and stubborn on the one hand, and, on the other, unbelievably generous and community minded. It’s because these are army values. And since just about every Israeli comes of age in the army, these values become national values.”
When he finished his service, Joel and his fiancé Dorit sought out an Israeli Orthodox rabbi to officiate at their wedding, but upon inquiring into Joel’s family past, the rabbi said, “You are not a Jew!”
As Joel and Dorit sat there bewildered, the rabbi explained that though Joel’s mother had converted before he was born with an American Orthodox rabbi, she was instructed by a Conservative rabbi who “practiced an invalid brand of Judaism.”
Dorit was furious, and, pounding her fist on the desk, shouted, “A young man risks his life for the Jewish state, and you have the chutzpah to say [he’s not a Jew]… Rabbi, did your sons serve in the army?... You don’t mind if he dies for your country, so long as he doesn’t get married here.”
Joel was devastated: “It’s as if my entire identity just got kicked in the nuts, and then it hits me: As far as this country is concerned, I’m a Gentile….I was enraged at how Israel had stabbed me in the back.”
He then reflected about his identity and Israel’s dilemma:
“I was a Jew, through and through. I couldn’t reinvent myself if I tried…. I’m not the one [however] with the identity crisis. Israel is. I know exactly who I am, but after two generations in which Israel defined itself as a post-Holocaust haven from antiSemitism – in other words, the past – Israel now faces a much greater challenge: defining its future. In the meantime, the country has no idea who it is. It’s a democracy with no separation between church and state. It’s a sovereign nation with only one rigidly defined border: the Mediterranean Sea. It’s a Jewish state where observant Jewish soldiers have to choose between breakfast and prayers, where the most religious Jews don’t even have to serve in the army, and where the criteria for getting drafted aren’t enough to get you buried in the military graveyard. The country is confused. Meanwhile, at the top of the pyramid is this tiny group of rabbis who think they’re Kings of the Jews and therefore get to decide who’s in and whose out. But the Kings of the Jews are out of touch, because they fail to realize that Israel’s future, if it has one, depends on all the reject-Jews they’ve been pushing away from the table: the half-Jews and intermarried Jews, the queer and bi Jews, the women rabbis and young, freethinking Israelis who crave spirituality, not just restrictions, and the children of supposedly illegitimate converts, like me.” (p. 255-256)
The author articulates the central challenge of the Jewish people and State of Israel today. Who are we and what are we becoming? Are we stuck in the past governed by narrow religious definitions and extremist politics, or are we inclusive of all religious streams, expansive in our thinking and moving forward?
Despite his feelings, Joel decided to convert, but admitted:
“The stage in my life where I could innocently take for granted that I belonged to the Jewish people simply by virtue of being me-when I dunked in the water, that part of my life ended and a piece of me died. Even though I chose to convert, I’m furious at Israel for forcing me to choose, for humiliating me, for making me stand naked before three rabbis. I’m also furious at myself for going through with it, because by dunking in that pool, I accepted their claim that it is they, not I, who get to determine who I am.”
Joel and Dorit married and now live in Chicago. Their decision to leave Israel is a great loss for the State.
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June 28, 2013 | 6:29 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
How to read the story of Pinchas, a shatteringly brutal tale of love and violence? That is the question in this week’s Torah portion, especially for the modern Jew?
The story begins this way:
“Now YHVH spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Pinchas, son of Elazar son of Aaron the priest, has turned my venomous-anger from the Children of Israel in his being zealous with My jealousy in their midst, so that I did not finish off the children of Israel in my jealousy.” (Numbers 25:10-11)
What did Pinchas do to attract God’s attention? Without due process he took his sword and in one thrust plunged it into the back of the Israelite man Zimri and through the belly of the Midianite woman Cozbi who were locked in an amorous embrace, and Pinchas killed them dead.
The Torah tells us that God credited Pinchas with having saved thousands who God was about to kill Himself, but Pinchas’ righteous rage kept God’s violence at bay. Then God rewarded Pinchas with “briti shalom – My covenant of peace.”
If this were the entire story many of us would despair its implications. Indeed, Jewish extremist rabbis in Israel have used this story in recent years to justify attacking Reform rabbis in the manner Pinchas attacked Zimri.
Thankfully, the midrashic and esoteric traditions explores deeper truths hidden in this grim tale that offer meaning and not despair.
Most rabbinic commentary justifies Pinchas’ deed as virtuous. There is, nevertheless, a mystical strain that regards Cozbi’s and Zimri’s love not as a great sin at all, but as a union so pure and beautiful that the world could not contain it.
For this understanding I’m grateful to Rabbi Jonathan Omer-man and Rabbi Yosi Gordon for bringing forward the reflections of some of our greatest mystic sages, Rabbis Isaac Luria, Chaim vital, Abraham Azulai, and the Izbeca Rabbi (“Learn Torah With…” – July 22, 1995). They have written:
“There are ten degrees of fornication in the world. At the lowest level, the worst, the will to sin is even greater than the desire to perform the act, and the person has to urge himself on to sally out into the world and sully it. At each ascending level, however, the protagonist’s will becomes progressively more powerful. At the tenth and final level, which is extremely rare, the desire is so powerful that no human will in the world would be strong enough to vanquish it. We must conclude that it was not a sin at all, but God’s will. Zimri and Cozbi, far from being wicked sinners, were a couple ordained from the beginning of creation.”
In other words, Zimri’s and Cozbi’s love was so high and exalted that it could neither be realized nor sustained in the real world, reminding us of the forbidden love of Romeo and Juliet and that of the maiden and her beloved in The Song of Songs 8:6-7:
Ki azah cha-mavet ahavah, / kasha chishol kin’ah.
“For love is fierce as death, / passion is mighty as Sheol;
R’shafeha rispei esh / Shalhevetya.
Its darts are darts of fire, / A blazing flame.
Mayim rabim lo yuchlu l’chabot et ahavah / Un’harot lo yish’t’puha.
Vast floods cannot quench love, / Nor rivers drown it.”
The Kabbalah teaches that Zimri’s and Cozbi’s soul-love defied the tragedy of their real life together, and they came back into the reincarnated life of Rabbi Akiva who built his famed academy.
In light of this, how might we regard Pinchas?
To the modern eye his reward of the “covenant of peace” seems unjust and wrong. Most traditional commentators, however, emphasize Pinchas’ motive as pure, l’shem shamayim, for the sake of heaven. The Kabbalists said that though Pinchas sincerely sought Truth, he didn’t grasp nor understand Cozbi’s and Zimri’s love.
There are two slight variations in the text that give support to this view. The first is in the writing of Pinchas’ name (Peh-yod-nun-chet-samech) (Numbers 25:11). The yod is written unusually small suggesting that God’s holiest Name (Yod-Heh-Vav-Heh), which at times the yod stands alone for God, and Jews (Yehudim – Yod-heh-vav-daled-yod-mem) that begins with the same yod, are diminished when a Jew engages in violence, even justified violence.
The second variation comes in the vav of the word shalom (shin-lamed-vav-mem), meaning “wholeness.” The vav here is strangely broken in the middle suggesting that the wholeness of this covenant (briti shalom), indeed any agreement that’s reached by destroying one’s opponent, will inevitably be a flawed and incomplete peace.
Is it not true? Real peace cannot come from violence and war.
Lest we despair, Rabbi Omer-man reminds us of Zimri’s and Cozbi’s love, of its exalted purity despite transgressing tribal taboo, and that even in situations as dire as this one was “there is light [even] when we [believe we] can only see darkness.”
June 23, 2013 | 7:28 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
A friend and member of my community at Temple Israel of Hollywood, Sophie Sartain, has written a wonderful piece on “Well-Being” in the current issue of LA Magazine about her daily walk on a popular Hollywood trail called “Runyon Canyon” whose trail head is several hundred yards from my synagogue. There the famous and unknown hike and exercise their dogs without leashes, one of the only open places in LA to do so.
The hike, requiring mild exertion and then excruciating effort the higher you go to the top of Mulholland Drive, enables the hiker to see Los Angeles from the beach to downtown. Sophie compares the levels of hiking up to Mulholland to the trek of the cherpas to the top of Mt. Everest. Granted, Runyon Canyan is hardly Mt. Everest, but to those starting out it feels as though it might be.
Sophie is a cancer survivor and a mother of small children, and Runyan Canyon has become her “gym.” As her conditioning progressed she was able to reach the summit, and having done so she discovered that this daily routine was meant to be more than just her personal gym and an opportunity to sight-see, meet friends and enjoy the dogs. This is what the hike came to mean to her:
At the Top my Runyon story took on a new dimension, for I happened upon the Wishing Box. A metal contraption with spikes protruding from its roof like the Statue of Liberty’s crown, the box was just there, unannounced and unexplained. When I first discovered it in 2011, it was painted with the message “Give a Prayer, Take a Prayer” and adorned with rainbows, flowers, and a geographically accurate globe.
Many people take advantage of this “Wishing Box” and have written down their fervent (at times trivial) wishes for fame and fortune. More importantly, they have prayed for love, good health, courage, and the fortitude to cope with their lives.
When we become ill, and when compelled to learn how to cope with our unmet dreams, personal limitations and fear of the future, we can feel very much alone and powerless in our lives.
The “Wishing Box” offers a vehicle for enhanced mindfulness and prayer, both of which can help us to stay present enough to count our many blessings and be grateful for them.
June 20, 2013 | 10:06 pm
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
“Born on a Blue Day” (publ. 2007) is an extraordinary memoir written by a young British autistic savant, Daniel Tammet. His mental capacities are so remarkable that he was able to recite Pi to the 22,514th digit and holds the British and European record.
The author writes about his unique way of thinking called “synesthesia,” in which he sees numbers, letters and musical notes as colors and shapes. One of about 100 people in the world with his abilities, scientists believe that they are a consequence of hyperactivity in his brain’s left pre-frontal cortex.
Tammet is able to multiply vast numbers without having to write anything down. He is a gifted linguist and is fluent in 10 languages - English, Finnish, French, German, Lithuanian, Esperanto, Spanish, Romanian, Welsh, and Icelandic (which he learned to speak in one week!).
As a child his father introduced him to chess by taking him to the local chess club. Daniel was instructed by one of the older members and after familiarizing himself with the moves of the different pieces and then visualizing them moving in mathematical configurations, he beat his teacher in his first game. He went on to win many matches.
This engaging memoir tells the often painful story of Daniel growing up, isolated because of autism, Asperger’s and an early epileptic episode that almost killed him. As a child he was so unusual that he had no friends, which he did not miss because he was happy spending time alone in his room thinking.
Daniel only learned to become empathic (a problem for those with autism and Asperger’s) by associating his feelings about numbers and colors to feelings others experience in their lives. He wrote:
“Emotions can be hard for me to understand or know how to react to, so I often use numbers to help me. If a friend says they feel sad or depressed, I picture myself sitting in the dark hollowness of number 6 to help me experience the same sort of feeling and understand it. If I read in an article that a person felt intimidated by something, I imagine myself standing next to the number 9. Whenever someone describes visiting a beautiful place, I recall my numerical landscapes and how happy they make me feel inside. By doing this, numbers actually help me get closer to understanding other people.”
Daniel describes his obsessive and compulsive need for order and routine in life, explaining:
“I eat exactly 45 grams of porridge for breakfast each morning; I weigh the bowl with an electronic scale to make sure. Then I count the number of items of clothing I'm wearing before I leave my house. I get anxious if I can't drink my cups of tea at the same time each day. Whenever I become too stressed and I can't breathe properly, I close my eyes and count. Thinking of numbers helps me to become calm again. Numbers are my friends, and they are always around me. Each one is unique and has its own personality… No matter what I’m doing, numbers are never very far from my thoughts.”
Tammet is often poetic, especially when describing his love of numbers and words through color and texture:
“There are moments, as I'm falling into sleep at night that my mind fills suddenly with bright light and all I can see are numbers -- hundreds, thousands of them -- swimming rapidly over my eyes. The experience is beautiful and soothing to me. Some nights, when I'm having difficulty falling asleep, I imagine myself walking around my numerical landscapes. Then I feel safe and happy. I never feel lost, because the prime number shapes act as signposts.”
Despite his Asperger’s and autism, Daniel lives independently. When he was in his early 20s he told his parents that he was gay, soon fell in love, and moved in with his lover/partner.
Daniel Tammet is a wonderful story teller, and to read his words is to enter a unique world. He is a descriptive, honest and often touchingly vulnerable writer.
People have often asked him how he feels about being a human “guinea pig” to scientific researchers of the human brain. He does not mind because he knows that what is learned will expand knowledge of how the brain works. He is also interested in understanding himself better and says he wrote this book so that his family will understand him better.
This memoir is not only a fascinating read, but is important in understanding the nature of a true savant and the condition of autism and Asperger’s.
You can read an excerpt from "Born on a Blue Day" here:
June 14, 2013 | 9:22 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
In this week’s Torah portion Hukat, Miriam dies and the people complain bitterly that there’s no water (Numbers 20:3-5). God tells him to take his rod and order the rock to produce water. But Moses, old and weary, instead of ordering the rock, strikes it with his rod. Though the people drink God punishes Moses from ever entering the Promised Land.
Talmudic sages said that Moses’ faith wasn’t strong enough, that because he failed to sanctify God in the sight of the people God deemed him unworthy to lead them into Canaan.
RAMBAM explained that Moses lacked compassion, that because the people were on the verge of death from thirst he should have spoken kindly to them instead of with words of rebuke.
Others say that in losing his temper Moses lost his moral authority to be leader.
And some say that because Moses claimed credit for the miracle of the water without acknowledging God, the Almighty denied him what he dreamed for most.
And there’s yet another explanation.
Earlier at Massah and Meribah (Exodus 17) the people also had complained of their dire thirst. Similar to our portion God told Moses to take his rod, but this time to hit the rock instead of speaking to it.
Why? What was different then vs now?
The answer is that Sinai intervened between the two events. There, at that lowly mountain God sought a new way for the people, to erase the experience of slavery, to create a new people in which force would yield to reason, physical strength to law, violence to dialogue and compassion.
God intended that a new age was to begin, the messianic age, and Moses was to be the Messiah. However, when Moses hit the rock instead of speaking to it, he showed the people that Sinai had actually changed nothing, that God was just a more powerful Pharaoh with bigger magic and greater violence.
In a modern midrash on the “Waters of Meribah,” Rabbi Marc Gelman writes movingly of what God intended for the people, then and now (Learn Torah with…Vol. 5, Number 16, January 30, 1999, edited by Joel Lurie Grishaver and Rabbi Stuart Kelman):
"When my people enters the land you shall not enter with them, but neither shall I. I shall only allow a part of my presence to enter the land with them. The abundance of my presence I shall keep outside the land. The exiled part shall be called my Shekhinah and it shall remind the people that I too am in exile. I too am a divided presence in the world, and that I shall only be whole again on that day when the power of the fist vanishes forever from the world. Only on that day will I be one. Only on that day will my name be one. Only on that day Moses, shall we enter the land together. Only on that day Moses, shall the waters of Meribah become the flowing waters of justice and the everlasting stream of righteousness gushing forth from my holy mountain where all people shall come and be free at last."
Turning to the present, we ask how we can apply the message of Sinai to the most challenging problem facing the Jewish people - the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
Sinai teaches that the power of the fist must give way to a vision of Oneness, and that vision requires us as American Jews to publicly support our own American effort led by President Obama and Secretary Kerry to help the Israelis and Palestinians resolve their conflict diplomatically in two states for two peoples living side by side in peace and security.
The status quo in which Israel occupies another people is morally, religiously and practically unsustainable. Israel will lose its soul, its democracy and/or its Jewish majority if it continues to occupy millions of Palestinians.
Israel must be helped to choose and the Palestinians must be helped to choose a new way that leads our two peoples and two nations towards acceptance of the other and a peaceful resolution of this conflict. The extremists on both sides need to be contained and controlled. Each side will need to make significant compromises for the sake of peace.
It will not be easy, but that, I believe, is the greater meaning of Sinai and we ignore it at our own peril.
Theodor Herzl said more than a century ago when envisioning a State for the Jewish people - Im tirtzu, ein zo agadah – If you will it, it is not a dream!
If Israel and the Palestinians will it, peace is also not a dream.
June 11, 2013 | 7:31 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
Those who say that PA President Abbas' constant refusal to sit down with PM Netanyahu without preconditions to restart negotiations for a two-state solution is an indication that he and the Palestinians are not able or willing to make peace is not the entire story.
When Israeli government leaders like Likud MK Danny Danon make statements that the government of Israel does not support a two-state solution, we have to understand that the Palestinians can legitimately argue that Israel too (at this point) is not a real partner for peace despite Bibi saying he is for a two-state solution.
Further, When PM Netanyahu insists that the Palestinians accept Israel as a "Jewish state" (which raises all kinds of problems internally including what "Jewish" means and who decides, and that such a designation excludes 20% of Israel's non-Jewish population) as opposed to the "Democratic state of the Jewish people" (which includes all Jews and every other non-Jewish citizen) Palestinians can legitimately argue that he is throwing obstacles in the way of finding a two-state solution.
Remember that no Israeli Prime Minister before Bibi ever made the demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a "Jewish state." The PLO and PA have recognized the state of Israel, but not with any more specificity than that - and why is it even necessary if a secure two-state deal can be reached? Israel will define itself. All that is necessary from the outside is that it recognize Israel - and that has already occurred and it will be affirmed when a two-state deal is made.
The Palestinians claim that they have no partner for peace in the Israeli government. Some Israelis claim they have no partner for peace among the Palestinians. There is truth in both claims. It is a mistake to lay all the blame on one side.
There has been a powerful silence among all American Jewish organizations in support of the Obama-Kerry mission except the Union for Reform Judaism and J Street. Why is that? I suggest that far too many of our organizational leaders are being led by cynicism and fear.
That negativity will not bring us closer to a secure two-state solution, which is in America's best interest, Israel's best interest, and the Palestinian's best interest. Rather, we need to be supporting Secretary Kerry vocally, letting the Obama administration as well as our senators and congressional representatives know of our support (call and email them all) and let the American effort take its course. Indeed, we will know in the next 2 to 4 weeks what success, if any, this American effort will have.
Even former Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has said that Israel cannot afford for this American diplomatic effort to fail.
I ask that those who have already decided that a two-state solution is not possible to ask themselves what is the alternative - one state that loses Israel's Jewish character or an endless occupation that loses Israel's democratic character?
Time is not on Israel's side, and the only way to secure Israel's future as a democracy with a Jewish majority is in a two-state solution. If you love Israel as a democracy and the state of the Jewish people, this is the ONLY alternative.
Let your representatives know how you feel and support everything the American government can do to promote a diplomatic and peaceful resolution to this age-old conflict that results in two states for two peoples.
June 7, 2013 | 9:35 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
The Wall Street Journal/NBC News published a poll this week reporting on the public’s approval rating of President Obama with special focus on his administration’s honesty and integrity in light of the Benghazi investigation, the IRS scandal and Drone attacks. The President currently enjoys a 48% approval rating and 47% disapproval, about what it was two months ago, largely along partisan lines but indicating a drop in approval among independent voters.
Sadly, there are many others in Washington who do not do nearly as well in the polls. The approval ratings for members of Congress as a whole have suffered dramatically in recent years into the low double digits not only because that august body has become so dysfunctional, but also because too many of our representatives refuse to compromise and find solutions to the nation’s many problems. Rather, they act more consistent with the laws of the jungle and abide by the philosophy that ends justify means, might makes right, cynicism trumps hope, and power is an ultimate “good.”
There are, of course, many decent servant-leaders in Washington and around the country who, despite formidable obstacles, seek to do well and work diligently on behalf of the common good.
This week’s Torah portion Korach considers both kinds of leaders as it tells the story of a major rebellion led by Korach and 250 Israelite leaders.
Korach was the first cousin of Moses and Aaron (Ex 6:18-21), a member of the priestly class and part of the ruling elite. The leaders around him are described as “Princes of the congregation, the elect men of the assembly, men of renown.” (Numbers 16:2) The Talmud says of them “that they had a name recognized in the whole world.” (Bavli, Sanhedrin 110a).
Despite his elevated status Korach wasn’t satisfied. He challenged Aaron’s exclusive right to the priesthood, and his cohorts Dathan and Abiram questioned Moses’ leadership. Korach's goal was to unseat the divinely chosen leaders, and he appealed to the people to overthrow them using religious language and espousing the importance of rotating leaders in office, all of whom were equally worthy.
“And they assembled themselves together against Moses and … Aaron, and said [to them], ‘You take too much upon yourself, seeing that all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them.’”
In actuality, Korach and his minions were not democrats at all; they were demagogues who manipulated and incited the masses for their narrow self-interests.
Rabbi Moshe Weiler, the founder of liberal Judaism in South Africa, has written that “Theirs [i.e. Korach and his cohorts] was the pursuit of kavod, honor and power, in the guise of sanctity and love of the masses.”
Onkolos (2nd century C.E.), in his Aramaic translation of the two opening words of the portion, Vayikach Korach (“And Korach took”) wrote It'peleg Korach (“And Korach separated himself”), suggesting that he did not consider himself to be one with the people nor was he interested in serving their interests.
Korach sought power for power’s sake and he ignited a controversy based on ignoble motivations and nefarious goals leading to the devastation of the community. In the end, the earth swallowed the rebels alive and sent them to Sheol in a spectacular inferno. (Numbers 16:31-35)
Korach’s eish ha-mach’loket (“fire of controversy”) became an eish o-che-lah (“a devouring fire”) that augured doom.
“The Sayings of the Sages” (5:21) reflects upon Korach’s rebellion and distinguishes between two very different kinds of controversy. The first is healthy and useful, pursued for the sake of heaven (l’shem shamayim) that brings about blessing and a stronger community. The second is a pernicious fight not based on lasting values and brings about disunity and destruction. Hillel and Shammai (1st century BCE) embodied the former, and Korach and his legions the latter.
Korach was essentially a cynic. Moses was the opposite, the humble servant-leader.
Who are we? Do we resonate with the voice of Korach or the spirit of Moses?
Who are our leaders? Are they interested only in power or in the common good?
Rabbi Rachel Cowan opines that though every individual may, indeed, aspire to be like Moses, Korach lives within our hearts too.
In thinking about ourselves and our leaders, the words of Maimonides remind us of the importance of pursuing higher virtue:
“The ideal public leader is one who holds seven attributes: wisdom, humility, reverence, loathing of money, love of truth, love of humanity, and a good name.” (Hilchot Sanhedrin 2:7)
June 6, 2013 | 7:13 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
Earlier this week, Secretary of State John Kerry gave a powerful and important speech at the American Jewish Committee conference, calling on American Jews to make their voices heard in support for negotiation efforts and a two-state solution. The speech was not given much attention from Jewish groups, but I, as a co-chair of the J Street Rabbinic Cabinet, believe that it is important to elevate Kerry’s call and to make sure that our community is vocally supporting Kerry’s efforts in the Middle East.
In that vein, J Street has released an open letter to the American Jewish community, which I hope will be circulated and read by many in an effort to galvanize support for a reinvigorated peace effort. The text of the letter can be found here.
The next few weeks provide a critical window of opportunity to do all that can be done to ensure that negotiations move ahead. I urge you to use this open letter as a jumping off point to encourage to your rabbis, synagogue leadership, friends and communities to vocally and actively support Secretary Kerry’s efforts.